Jesus’ Parable About Forgiveness

Note: This blog is the seventh in a year-long series of posts on the parables of Jesus. The series will run through most of 2019. You can find the first blog on the parables HERE.

Perhaps one of Jesus’ most challenging parables is his parable on forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35. It is challenging on two levels. First, the bold, seemingly categorical statement that Jesus makes at the end of the parable about forgiveness can be difficult to square with the other teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament. Second, it becomes clear to all who read the parable just how wide the gap is between how God has been to us and how we are to other people. We must not, however, look away and pretend we didn’t read what we read in Matthew 18. Sometimes we have to wrestle with the words of Jesus. This is one of those times.

Question 1: What is the immediate circumstances of the parable?

Matthew organizes his Gospel around five major discourses (six, if you count the “great commission” discourse which doesn’t quite fit the pattern). These discourses are preceded by a collection of narratives of the life of Jesus. The narrative texts are arranged by Matthew to help his readers understand Matthew’s core thesis: Jesus is the messiah promised in the Old Testament, but that probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. For Matthew, Messiah is not the one who would deliver Israel from her enemies and restore her to her former economic and political glory. For Matthew, Messiah is the one who will live, die, and then rise from the dead to deliver Israel—and the whole world—from their sins.

The parable about forgiveness in Matthew 18:21-35 is the climax of Jesus’ fourth major discourse. It is preceded by a series of narratives which illustrate Matthew’s thesis: the feeding of the multitudes and other miracles, Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus’ confrontation with the Jewish leadership over who the Christ would be, and the mount of transfiguration.

The discourse in Matthew 18 kicks off with a question from one of Jesus’ disciples—“Who is the greatest in your kingdom?” In the midst of the discourse, Peter askes a second question—“How many times do I have to forgive my brother?” Jesus, then, tells this forgiveness parable to answer that question.

Question 2: What is the structure of the parable?

The parable of forgiveness has a story structure with rising action, a climax, and a resolution. Within that story structure, there is a very important repetition (as there is with most parables). This repetition invites us to make a comparison, and it is in that comparison that the point of the parable lies.

In the parable a king calls in the people who owe him money in order to get what he is owed. One of his subjects, a servant, is called in who owes the king a vast sum of money, an amount that the hearers of this parable would assume he could never repay. When it becomes apparent that the subject can’t pay, the king orders him and his whole family sold into slavery to recoup his money. The man begins to beg for his life and the life of his family, and the king feels pity for this man. It is here in the parable that the king does something entirely surprising. He doesn’t just spare the man’s family. He doesn’t just reduce the amount or extend the terms of the repayment. He forgives the entire debt.

As the servant heads out of the king’s presence, he encounters a “fellow servant” who owes him a pretty significant sum of money, but it is nothing compared to what the first servant owed the king. The first servant begins to strangle the second servant who, like the first just moments ago, begs for mercy. Unlike the king, however, the first servant refuses to forgive the debt and has the man put in prison until the debt is paid.

Other servants see this happen and go straight to the king to report it. The king summons the first servant back and says: “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Then the king delivers him to the “torturers” for his wickedness. Most translations have the word “jailors” here, and there are some good reasons for that. This word, however, is much stronger than the idea “sheriffs” or “correctional officers.” What the king has planned for that first, unforgiving servant is extremely unpleasant. Jesus then concludes with some of the most dire words in the New Testament: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Question 3: Is there anything in the details of the parable modern readers need to understand?

There is a good bit in the details of this story that scholars debate. Are the sums of money realistic? Isn’t putting someone in prison a terrible way to get your money back from them? Is the depiction of prison here drawn from Jewish civil codes or Roman? Are the motivations realistic? What is the monetary values of these sums?

These are all interesting questions, but we should not forget that this is a parable. It is a made-up story, designed to teach us something that is entirely true. Let the scholars debate, but let’s not miss the point. The first servant owed the king a debt that he could never repay (10,000 talents). Literally in Greek the number is a “myriad.” It is the biggest number Matthew could easily write. The second servant owed a large sum (100 denarii), but it was reasonable enough that he might repay it. Modern historians tell us that a denarius was the pay of a “grunt” soldier or an unskilled laborer for one day’s duty or work. There is much more debate as to the worth of a “talent,” since it was a unit of weight and not a unit of currency. Estimates from scholars as to the value of a talent range from 100 denarii to more than 6,000 denarii. So anywhere from four months wages to twenty years wages per talent. Keep in mind, however, that the first servant owed the king ten thousand talents! So, think about how much you will earn in the next four months. That’s how much the second servant owed the first. Then think about how much you would earn over the next 2,500 to 200,000 years. That’s how much the first servant owed the king. At the median income level in the US, that amounts to between 120 million and almost 10 billion dollars. It’s a made-up number. It’s an outrageous number. And when you start to realize that, the parable will make a lot more sense.

Question 4: What is the meaning of the parable?

The parable, by its repetition, is asking us to compare two people. A servant has just been handed a gift likely worth billions of dollars. He owes his king far more than he could pay. He owed more than an entire country could pay in a generation in those days. He was entirely helpless under this crushing debt, and that made him totally at the mercy of the king. But the king acted out of pity. The king acted mercifully and forgave the debt. What a gift! The parable then expects someone who has been forgiven that much debt to have mercy when faced with a fellow servant who owes so little by comparison. When the forgiven servant refuses to forgive the relatively small debt owed to him, the king, who forgave so much, pronounces profound judgment upon the unforgiving servant. At the end of the parable, Jesus makes the point abundantly clear. If we, the people who have been forgiven an unpayable debt—the debt of our sins, refuse to extend forgiveness to those who have wronged us, we too will fall under the profound judgment of God: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Jesus is not suggesting that ordinary, gospel-loving Christians who have a bad day and, in a moment, refuse to forgive someone who wrongs them are going to be cast into hell by the judgment of God. But Jesus is clearly teaching that you can tell what someone believes about their own forgiveness by looking at how they forgive others. This is a cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching. He tells us that what we do with our bodies and what comes out of our mouths is a direct result of what is in our hearts (Matthew 12:33-37). And Jesus tells us specifically that how much we love God is in direct proportion to how much we understand the gospel and his forgiveness of our sins (Luke 7:36-50). This parable illustrates those teachings in a powerful way.

We’ve become very comfortable telling ourselves that though we believe the truth, we just don’t always live the truth. That is sometimes true, but Jesus wants us to see ourselves more clearly through this parable. How we act may be the result of our falling short of what we believe, but more often than not, how we act is a reflection of what we believe. Jesus challenges us at that point in a painful way. If you refuse forgiveness to someone who wrongs you, Jesus says it is because you don’t really understand the gospel. You don’t understand how you have been forgiven. You think that the forgiveness you received from God was slight, that you were worth the effort that you could pay God back, so you don’t really owe him. And if that is how you think about God and your sin, then you are outside of the truth of the gospel and under the judgment of God (John 3:36). People who have experienced the forgiveness of God, forgive others.

Take a moment to remind yourself from the Scripture what your debt is. It is not slight; the just punishment for your sin was death (Romans 6:23). God does not forgive your sin debt because you deserved it; you didn’t (Romans 5:8). And you can never pay God back for what he did for you (Galatians 3:10-14). So why did God forgive you? Because he loves you (John 3:16). Why was he merciful to you? Because that’s just who he is.

So, to answer Peter’s question, just how forgiving should we be to those who wrong us? Jesus’ answer is clear. We should be as forgiving to them as God was to us. Anything less misses the gospel. And we never want to miss the gospel.

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